The Business Litigation Blog

“Stairway to Heaven” Copyright Infringement Trial Begins

Led Zeppelin is under fire for copyright infringement of Spirit’s instrumental track that features a descending chromatic arpeggio that sounds similar to Led Zeppelin’s classic track “Stairway to Heaven.” The liner notes of Spirit’s 1996 reissue of their self-titled debut address people saying “Taurus” sounds like “Stairway to Heaven.” Former spirit guitarist Randy Craig Wolfe wrote “people always ask me why ‘Stairway to Heaven’ sounds exactly like ‘Taurus’, which was released two years earlier. …They opened up for us on their first American tour.”

Historically cases related to copyright infringement in music have garnered significant media attention and had contentious trials. The famous Queen and Vanilla Ice sampling case pose similar, but ultimately different problems than what is presented here. Other similar preexisting cases are the “Blurred Lines” case where Pharrell and Robin Thicke were accused of lifting Marvin Gaye’s music, and Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”, eerily similar to Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.”

Many different dilemmas are presented in this case. A descending chromatic chord progression could be seen as a function of music and not something able to be copyrighted. Taurus had been known to cover Beatles songs featuring similar progressions. Any failure by Spirit to credit The Beatles would not be an excuse for Led Zeppelin’s failure to credit Sprit, however Jimmy Page and Robert Plant claim to have never heard “Taurus” before writing “Stairway.” Rampant substance abuse in the early seventies is not allowed to be cited as a defense to not knowing the original track. Zeppelin have a history of lifting rifts, progressions, and song pieces without providing writing credit. 

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